SALT LAKE CITY — If I want to know how clean a restaurant down the street is, I can quickly go to slco.org/health/inspection-reports and check it out.
Just now, I spent five minutes and found out a favorite place of mine didn’t wash its utensils frequently enough at the time of its last inspection, and it was using a hand sink to wash sanitizing rags. It’s up to me to decide whether this changes my dinner plans.
But if I want to know the names of a pair of Utah County businesses that recently were found to have defied COVID-19 guidelines, requiring sick employees to come into work, eventually leading to dozens of them contracting the coronavirus, I’m out of luck.
If I want to know whether Salt Lake County is quarantining and isolating people who have tested positive for COVID-19, including some who are homeless, at the Holladay Lions Rec Center or a hotel somewhere in the valley, I can’t.
It took years to convince politicians that the public has an inherent right to know how local eateries fare in recent health department inspections. People need to know whether they’re eating at a place that is consistently clean and safe, and they can judge for themselves about the importance of minor violations. But politicians used to argue that the public, and especially the media, would misuse the information.
That seems silly now, but we’re hearing much the same about pandemic-related secrecy. A recent Deseret News story about quarantine facilities quoted a county official talking about concerns over privacy. Utah County, and the state, have been vague about the businesses that violated coronavirus guidelines, expressing worries about public reaction during a time of heightened concerns.
This really shouldn’t be hard. If I have the right to know that the restaurant down the street sometimes uses a hand sink to wash rags, I should know the names of businesses that put their employees’ lives at risk during a pandemic. I should know where quarantine centers are and which hotel is being used to house first responders.
This is not a matter of morbid curiosity. Armed with knowledge, an enterprising reporter or a private government watchdog agency can make sure taxpayer dollars are being spent wisely, that employees at offending companies are now treated properly and that no one is receiving political favors.
Unfortunately, these Utah examples reflect a lot of what’s going on nationwide during the pandemic. As governments spend billions to fight the effects of coronavirus, access to information is drying up.
An Associated Press report said the nonprofit Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press recently identified more than 100 cases in at least 30 states and the District of Columbia where counties, cities or public agencies have either shut off access to open records or announced massive delays in responding to requests.
Some governments are citing worries about terrorism as reasons to keep information quiet, especially about emergency plans or the use of facilities.
A bit of this is understandable. Government officials, like many in the private sector, are working from home, making it hard to respond to records requests. But absent any credible threats, information about how facilities are being used should not be hidden.
As the head of the nonprofit First Amendment Coalition told the AP, transparency and access to records protect the public. “That’s the only way really to avoid waste, fraud, abuse and to ensure that governments aren’t overstepping their bounds.”
The irony of this pandemic may be that protesters nationwide have missed the mark completely — focusing on face masks and the closures of nonessential businesses when they should have been concerned with the lack of transparency, instead.
A coalition of Utah news outlets has appealed Utah County’s refusal to release records about the two businesses that defied COVID-19 guidelines. The Deseret News also is fighting Salt Lake County’s refusal to identify a hotel it is leasing for $45,000 every two weeks to house first responders and others who have come into contact with the virus, a hotel it is paying nearly $39,000 per week to house homeless individuals, as well as other quarantine and isolation facilities in the county.
Salt Lake County may well be using taxpayer money wisely. The two businesses in Utah County may have reformed and changed how they operate. The problem with secrecy is that, just as with the cleanliness of restaurants, we can’t know this for sure until we can study the evidence for ourselves.